This is a sentence.
This Is Also a Sentence, But It Probably Sounds a Little Different in Your Head.
THIS SENTENCE IS EVEN MORE DIFFERENT (AND PROBABLY LOUDER).
and this sentence probably sounds like an instant message from your teenager.
What makes these sentences all “sound” different from one another? Why do we read them in different ways? And how can you use this magical voice-changing technique in your marketing materials?
Welcome to Copywriting for Beginners, our series of blog posts about the basics of copywriting. (You can find our past posts on punctuation, sentences, and paragraphs here.) Today’s installment will dive deep into capitalization: what it is, when to use it, and how to leverage it to better communicate with your audience.
What Is Capitalization For?
All letters of the English alphabet have a lowercase and uppercase version. But why? Why don’t we just use one symbol for each letter?
There are a few reasons.
Historically speaking, capitalization started with the Greeks and Romans. They mostly wrote in all uppercase or “majuscule” because large letters with sharp angles and few curves were easier to carve into stone.
When writing shifted to ink and parchment, the bulky, all caps style changed, too. Medieval scribes, who spent most of their time copying texts, needed to write faster and fit more letters on a page. They developed smaller letters that were easy to connect, which we now think of as “lowercase.” (You can read more about the history of majuscule and miniscule texts at Dictionary.com.)
Lowercase or “miniscule” text was easier to read and write, making literacy more accessible to the people. Over time, capital letters were mixed in to add emphasis. Eventually, we got the standardized system of writing that we recognize today.
Most of us aren’t carving stone with a chisel or painstakingly transcribing manuscripts with a quill and parchment—so what purpose do upper- and lowercase letters serve now?
First, capital letters mark the start of a new sentence. Capitalization and punctuation work together to visually separate sentences from one another, making them more distinct and self-contained.
Capitalization also adds emphasis, importance, and respect. Think about the types of words we capitalize: names, job titles, books, locations, forms of address, and so on. We use capital letters to show that these names are important, that they aren’t just “things.” Your friends Mark and John are fundamentally different from the nouns “mark” and “john.”
And finally, following conventional capitalization rules makes your copy accessible to your readers. We all bring certain expectations with us when we read a piece of copy. Chances are, your readers expect you to write with only a few words capitalized. When you fit those expectations, you establish yourself as a professional brand who’s easy to communicate with.
There are several patterns or “cases” of capitalization you can follow when writing. Each one has its place and carries with it its own set of connotations.
1. Sentence case
Sentence case is what we’ve been using in most of this blog post. You capitalize the first letter of the sentence and any proper nouns (names, places, brands, titles, etc.) regardless of their place in the sentence.
This is what you’ll use in most of your copy. Most readers expect to see sentence case in emails, blog posts, printed pieces, websites, and so on. If you’re writing in complete sentences, you’ll probably want to use sentence case.
2. Title Case
Title case is the convention used for capitalizing titles of books, movies, songs, and other media. You’ll often find it in email subject lines, blog titles, and as the headline for a webpage or news article. You capitalize nearly every word in the title, except for articles (like “a” or “the”), prepositions (like “in,” “on,” “of,” or “to”), and conjunctions (“and,” “but,” or “or”).
Except. . . there are some issues with title case.
Textwizard gives a detailed example of the complications with title case, including several exceptions to the rules and points of debate. Here are some noteworthy examples:
- Always capitalize the last word in a title, even if it’s an article, preposition, or conjunction
- Capitalize longer prepositions like “between” and “through,” and sometimes “down” or “about” depending on your preference
- Capitalize the second word in a hyphenated compound if you want
- Capitalize “to” when it isn’t functioning as a preposition
If you aren’t following a particular style guide like Chicago or AP, you can decide for yourself whether you want to capitalize that one preposition in your blog post title—it’s your call.
3. ALL CAPS
Writing in all caps can be very powerful, especially when it’s in contrast with sentence or title case writing. Your reader is going along at a steady pace, when BAM! You hit them with a well-placed all caps word or two.
Designers will often use all caps in titles, headlines, and graphics because the words look cleaner and line up more neatly. In that context, all caps can look great!
But it doesn’t work the same way in most copywriting.
THINK ABOUT IT. IF WE WROTE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME, IT WOULD LOOK LIKE WE WERE YELLING OR LEFT THE CAPS LOCK BUTTON ON.
Writing several words in a row of all caps can “sound” angry to your audience, especially in the internet age when all caps is associated with rage, aggression, and excitement. All caps is also proven to be harder to read because readers tend to identify words by their shape. Where capital letters are blocky and uniform, sentence case has more visual variation.
4. all lowercase
Writing in all lowercase is much less common than all caps. On the one hand, writing without capitalization can look uniform. It avoids all the pesky questions that come with title case. And it can be a powerful tool, with a lot of connotations on the internet, like you’re too busy/lazy/jaded to hit the shift key.
On the other hand, you might ruffle some feathers. If you commit to writing in all lowercase, be prepared to not capitalize proper nouns like people’s names, titles, and even your brand.
All lowercase writing certainly has a place in digital marketing for brands who want to establish themselves as carefree, hip, and a little irreverent. Because it is so contrary to professional conventions, it is probably best to relegate it to social media and SMS.
5. Capitalizing Every Word
This style “solves” the problems that come with title case by simply capitalizing the first letter of every word, including prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.
The Result Is Something Like This, Which Is Slow To Read, Not Visually Pleasing, And Looks Like Your Great-Aunt Typing On Facebook.
Capitalizing every word has little use outside of social media, and even there, it’s not common. On older platforms like Facebook, it’s typically done by older users (sometimes by one party of a joint account to distinguish their typing “voice” from their partner). Younger people might adopt the style ironically, making every tweet sound like an important headline.
Unless your brand falls in a very specific niche on the internet, there is no reason to format your copywriting this way.
When to Break the Rules and Why
Unlike most academic writing, copywriting gives you the freedom to break grammar rules. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the rules entirely—be intentional about when you do and don’t follow capitalization conventions.
Here are some ways to shake up your copywriting by playing with capitalization:
- Sprinkle some ALL CAPS words into your sentence case or title case copy. This is extra effective in subject lines, headlines, and titles to call attention to words like “FREE,” “NOW,” and “BEST.” Just be aware that more than a few words at a time can come across as “shouting” at your audience.
- Experiment with different cases for your subject lines. Title case can make your subject lines feel like Important and Professional News, while all lowercase is casual and a little hasty. Sentence case falls somewhere in the middle.
- Hip brands with a young audience can play with unconventional capitalization in social media, including capitalizing words mid-sentence for Emphasis, alternating capitalization to imply sArCaSm, or eschewing capitalization altogether. The same applies to SMS.
- The more professional the medium, the more important it is to stick to traditional capitalization. Press releases, company statements, and other official communications should stick to sentence case in the body copy.
- Do an A/B test on your CTA buttons to see which form of capitalization works best with your audience.
The internet has fundamentally changed how capitalization communicates meaning and tone. In the absence of vocal cues and body language, people use capitalization, punctuation, and other grammar tools to add extra layers of context to their writing.
As far back as 1984, early internet users relied on all caps to “yell” or emphasize their words. And today’s users continue to get creative with ways to add meaning with capitalization. (Just look at those Spongebob memes.)
Brands can and should use the language of the internet to better communicate with their audiences. . . to a point. It’s a fine line between being a relatable online brand and being a try-hard brand that alienates its entire audience. MarketSmiths has a great article on the subject, and the complexity of using memes, internet grammar, and netiquette deserves its own blog post.
Don’t know what kind of capitalization is right for your brand? Consider your target audience and your desired brand voice. A savvy grandfatherly figure will probably use all proper capitalization, while a snarky big sister or carefree teen can get away with more rulebreaking. Experiment in low-stakes situations like A/B tests and social media posts to see what works, and when you find something successful, repeat it.
Still lost in all the nuances of capitalization in digital communications? No worries. The grammar of the internet is an ever changing landscape, and you’re certainly not alone. Schedule a call, and let us give you a hand. Our marketing experts can help you find your voice and utilize all the tools of online communication to better connect with your audience.